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Folk artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy plays Duke with Cairo Gang

Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is a highly regarded folk artist whose work has been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash. He’s touring behind his most recent album, The Wonder Show of the World.
Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is a highly regarded folk artist whose work has been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash. He’s touring behind his most recent album, The Wonder Show of the World.

For nearly two decades, Will Oldham has produced his unique brand of folk music. Though he has rotated through backing bands and multiple monikers repeatedly, his music has always been thematically enigmatic and descriptively ineffable. This Saturday, he brings his talents to Reynolds Theater, in support of his 2010 release The Wonder Show of the World, performing as his longtime pseudonym Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Both this weekend’s show and the album pair Oldham with the talents of Emmett Kelly’s Cairo Gang.

Director of Duke Performances Aaron Greenwald was particularly keen on convincing Oldham to stop by Durham on his brief East Coast tour, which includes a mere half-dozen venues across the Southeast and New York City. It’s no wonder—his haunting music resonates with “In Durham, at Duke, a Nation Made New,” this season’s theme.

“Oldham seemed like a perfect fit in this category—not only is his recent work musically stripped down, but the lyrics are spare, profound and sometimes coy—traits you’ll find in ready supply in the ballads of Mississippi John Hurt, Clarence Ashley and the Carter Family, amongst others,” Greenwald wrote in an e-mail.

The show is also part of the “Liars, Thieves & Big Shot Ramblers” series of Duke Performances. It seems an accurate characterization for an artist that has never been interested in the typical folk and country scene. Instead, he has forged his own path of self-invention, and has remained both dedicated to and focused on his personal vision and muse.

Indeed, Oldham’s music has defied easy classification for most of his career, with its personal, introspective lyrics and often subtle instrumentation. The highlight, though, has always been his delicate voice, which Greenwald described as “a good, clear Appalachian-style falsetto that he’s learned to use effectively over the years.”

His lyrics have covered a disparate range of themes and subjects: They have often remained symbolically obscure, yet perhaps are all the more compelling for it. Adding to his mysterious image is Oldham’s penchant for adopting varied stage names over the years, in response to personal and stylistic changes. His main persona, in recent years, has been that of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, under which he released the critically acclaimed record I See A Darkness in 1999. His contemporary take on a distinctively American genre and style has been well-respected by other artists over the years. Most notably, Johnny Cash recorded a cover of the 1999 album’s title track.

Oldham wrote in an e-mail that the show will highlight both his new record with the Cairo Gang and old Bonnie “Prince” Billy favorites. He will be backed by a five-piece band representing the Cairo Gang, led by Kelly and including talented members from varied other acts. The musician cited both Emmett Kelly’s creative drive and positive dynamics while working together as compelling reasons for forging a collaborative album with the latter’s Cairo Gang.

“He’s got an intense fluency with music, and an ability to translate language into music and back again, which helps us cut to the chase and get to where we want to go with the song or the performance,” Oldham said of his recording partner. “[He] challenges me rhythmically and melodically as a singer, and helps me to become a better singer, which at the end of the day is one of my driving forces in life.”

The final product, The Wonder Show of the World, was characteristically soft-spoken, yet deliberate in its quiet intensity, as with many of his recordings in recent years, and the record was released to critical success.

The most intriguing aspect of Saturday’s show might just be opener the Babblers, about which Oldham has been vague and tight-lipped. Even Aaron Greenwald has remained curiously reticent, merely suggesting that “folks will want to turn up at 8 p.m.—the opener is an integral part of the show.” Though he gave no solid answers as to the identity of this unidentified opener, he did invite attendees and media alike to turn to the Internet for possible theories.

Either way, this weekend’s performance will be a “folk” experience like no other from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Cairo Gang.

“Folks attending the show on Saturday [will] see a great, iconoclastic and enigmatic American songwriter and performer,” Greenwald said. “The whole thing ought to be a total pleasure—it’s one of the shows I’m most looking forward to on the season.”

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Cairo Gang is performing Saturday at 8 p.m. in Reynolds Theater. The Babblers will open the show. Tickets are $38, 32 and $5 for students. For more information, visit www.dukeperformances.duke.edu.

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